Friday, July 25, 2014

Legends - Myrtle Beach's core of music and dance 7/25/14

     Myrtle Beach is a community that currently stands at a cultural crossroads, in fact I would argue at the moment it is having a cultural arts identity crisis.  To understand this we need first to look at the history of this town.

     The Grand Strand stretch of South Carolina, which includes Myrtle Beach, does not have the tidal rivers that the rest of the state southward has.  This means there was no transport in the early days - and that the valuable cypress and live oak trees did not grow here.  So Myrtle Beach is a relative newcomer to the South Carolina economic scene.  Tourism is the driving force here, and its start can be traced back to the various pavilions that have been built on the beach since 1902.
     In the beginning the pavilion was the town's social center, primarily used for the locals to learn how to dance.  This drove the need for live music, so a demand for bands developed.  In 1940 the military built and Air Force base here, which brought a lot more expendable cash in the form of Airmen looking to have a good time, and learning to dance to live music was something many of them were willing to spend money on.

     If a "Myrtle Beach Historian" exists, I have not found them, so I may be a bit fuzzy on the precise dates and context of events.  But this huge resort hotel was built in the 1960's era, and the dynamic of beach life changed to being an oceanfront destination.  Scores of huge hotels and time-share condos now line the beach for miles.

     Attracting northerners down to play golf in the winter was a success, and the area now has a glut of golf courses - the last count I read was 114.  But golf isn't a unique cultural thing.

     Meanwhile, back at the beach dance traditions and the bands that created the music continued to evolve.   Shag dancing, a unique six count style of dancing began here, and as more venues were built along the beach the need for bands that could play live music increased.  The band Alabama got its start here and even performed a song titled "Shagging on the Boulevard" in tribute to the dance. 

     Subsequent to the arrival of the Airmen, arcade games began to be popular as well.  Starting as random machines in the Pavilions, this line of entertainment had expanded into Ferris wheels and roller coasters by the 1970's.  The point is that the cultural tradition of this area is rooted in live music and dance which dominated the scene until the last decade or so. 

1970's era photo of the beach

     Various large music venues were built here starting in the 1970's as well.  But this reached its zenith and fallen on hard in the last decade.  In 2008, in a location that two large and successful music venues had been operating for over a decade, a 55 acre tract of land was developed as a music themed amusement park named "Hard Rock Park."  Within a year it was bankrupt, and reopened under the the name "Freestyle Music Park."  This too went bankrupt within a year.  Here it stands today.

     A credit default swap driven real estate bust and subsequent recession happened in this time period and contributed largely to the parks demise.  Numerous locals have told me that the park alienated itself from the community, which I am sure also played a part.  As we learned  at the Haunted Hotel on Daufuskie Island, if you alienate the locals in tight knit areas you assure yourself a tough row to hoe.  But long story short, the park went under and took the two theaters with it.  

(I  like the icon of the man siccing the dog on someone in the yellow caution triangle.)

     The two theaters are now churches and the park sits in decay.

    We have traveled the entire coast of South Carolina, and this is the only remaining stretch of land available to be developed within a couple of miles of the coast in the state.  So this area is going to develop - but the question is - will Myrtle Beach's dance and live music traditions now die?  Is Myrtle destined to become just another amusement park town or can the local culture rooted in developing unique styles of dance and fostering musicians survive?  Is there any chance that a new generation will learn the necessary skills needed to develop new and original content?

     Meet the Becks - Larry and Natalie.

Larry and Natalie (Cesario) Beck

     Larry is the stage manager and Natalie is the dance captain of one of the few Myrtle Beach music venues left standing - Legends in Concert.

     Larry and Natalie met here - Larry is the stage manager and actually started his career here as an intern.  He is the guy who is in charge of getting the show off on a daily basis - coordinating costumes, stage props, musical instruments, making sure music and lights are integrated and all the other things that go along with putting on a show.  

      Now you are going to have to bear with the photography for the rest of the article because although what Larry does behind the scenes is very interesting, photographing the front side of the show is more - well - alluring.  In fact one of the jokes at the end of the show is when the Elvis impersonator asks the audience to applaud for Larry - who he says cannot come out on the stage because of an impending arrest warrant.

Natalie Cesario Beck

          Natalie has been working with Legends for 12 of the 19 years they have been open here in Myrtle.  She teaches dance in the local high school, she works out every day, she is the dance team captain here, she sings back-up vocals and she dances twice a day - a pair of two hour high energy performances.

     She has a degree in dance from Northern Illinois University, where she studied ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, modern and point styles.

     At a capacity of 608, the theater setting is intimate.  Perhaps as a result of this the theater remains close to the community.  In fact, beyond Natalie's teaching local youths dance, every other Wednesday the theater encourages local children to open up the show with their own acts.  The crowds go wild - it is a really a fun thing to watch.

     Legends as a show specializes in showcasing performers that both appear and sound like - well - legends in the music business.  Many of them come from far flung places, but some are local.  For instance, General Manager Jason Aiesi found Elizabeth Scarborough - a spot-on Taylor Swift performer via Facebook in nearby Charleston SC.

Elizabeth Scarborough

     Natalie's dance team's performance is high energy, and requires better than a dozen costume changes and different dance styles as they accompany tributes to various stars spanning the last sixty years.

     The show hast its artistic side too.  Many portions of the act are very pleasing to the eye.

    Meet Jason Aiesi.  (He got all the last name  vowels I am missing. (Emch))

Jason Aiesi

     As General Manager, Jason rotates the acts every season - usually half of the performers are replaced each time.  (Average is 5-6 acts.)   He has been working in this industry in Myrtle Beach from way back - in fact he worked for years with the two theaters that went under with the amusement park.  He mentors people coming into the industry, and has worked with celebrities such as The Gatlin Brothers and Crooks and Chase during the infancy of Myrtle Beach's entertainment boom in the 1990's. 

   One of his favorite things is being out in public with the impersonators and watching public reaction.  There was an interesting scene when he did a promotional event in conjunction with a recent American Idol talent search in Myrtle Beach.  You see, rocker Steven Tyler spent a stint working as a judge on the show.

Chris Van Dahl

     Chris Van Dahl, who plays the tribute to Steven Tyler for Legends is a dead ringer.  When they showed up at the Idol audition, the whole line of fans thought that the real Steven Tyler was present.  In fact, even the security guards and film crew were fooled. And the more they tried to explain that this wasn't the real Steven Tyler, the more convinced everyone was that he was just trying to be anonymous.  So fans were crushing in, security was trying to hustle them inside and the film crew was trying to get footage.  It is funny that telling people that you are not a particular star inclines them to believe even more firmly that you are.  And the funniest incidents?  Jason says from time to time the star in question is someone who has been deceased for years.  It is always uncomfortable figuring out if you should be the one to break the news.

     And there was my favorite guys - 

Russ Peterson and Dan Meisner

     Dan Meisner and Russ Peterson as the Blues Brothers.  (Regretfully I do not have enough space here to touch on all of the other performers, the band and the lights and sound guys, but thanks to "all y'all.")

Trey Younts

     Trey Younts is the man who handles producing the show.  A big part of Trey's job is to make sure everyone has what they need to do their best - whether that be equipment or encouragement.  There are a lot of personalities at play in a venue like this, and putting out two high energy shows a day six days a week is hard on everyone.  Trey is a gentle and soft spoken influence that helps everyone stay grounded.

     So - Larry, Natalie, Trey and Jason - these people are the core of a new era of theater in Myrtle Beach.  Legends is one of the venues that has weathered the storm and is here to stay, and their involvement in the community and assistance to young aspiring performers may be the spark that carries the next generation into a new era of musical tradition.  Will Myrtle Beach's tradition of creativity survive or will this turn into another resort town without a real personality?  It will be interesting to see where things have evolved to when we return there in four years on the main trip. 
     Today's parting shot is one someone took fifty years ago along the strip.  Anyone remember these ads?

Have an awesome Friday everyone !!

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